LONDON -- The World Cup football tournament that kicks-off June 12 in Brazil represents a momentous advance for the sport, at least as far as the use of technology is concerned. The acceptance by FIFA, the game’s international governing body, of the use of goal-line technology (GLT) for the first time should bring an end to the outcome of crucial games being decided by goals falsely awarded or ruled out.
There are certainly misgivings, by fans, pundits, and some national football associations, who contend it is too expensive and could be a slippery slope towards a technology obsessed, stop-start game where every decision -- be it off-side or players diving -- could also justifiably need to be analyzed.
Some even suggest it could lead to sociological consequences. Referees’ decisions have long been the source of dispute and acrimony between players, clubs, TV pundits, and most importantly fans in bars, pubs, and streets around the grounds, and subsequently at home. This is widely accepted as part of the global game.
But the use of a 14-camera-based system located at each end of the pitch -- supplied by British sports technology pioneer Hawk-Eye Innovations to the 20 English Premiere League clubs for the season just ended -- indicates the level of controversy, banter, and even self-righteousness has hardly abated. (The start-up was acquired by Sony three years ago).
The system was used to adjudicate on 100 incidents, and the one-second delay to confirm whether the ball had crossed the line made little difference to the flow of the game. Neither, to the disappointment of some proponents of the technology, has it raised the drama involved, as earlier versions of Hawk-Eye’s system have in assisting umpires’ rulings on line calls in tennis or out/not out decisions in international cricket. The English Football Association was the first national association to use GLT.
FIFA’s autocratic president, Sepp Blatter, has for decades stubbornly opposed GLT, and many national associations also question the benefits. Indeed just a few weeks ago, Germany’s Bundesliga voted against its introduction, and the influential Italian and Spanish leagues remain unconvinced, at least for now. Major League Soccer in America has said it is monitoring the situation. (Apologies to US readers, but I will continue to use the term football.)
A few correct decisions in the coming weeks in Brazil may force at least some of these football associations’ hands.
Brazil hosts World Cup 2014.
Blatter’s road-to-Damascus moment came at the last World Cup in 2010, when a blatant goal by English midfielder Frank Lampard in the quarterfinal against Germany was missed by the referee and his assistants, who claimed they could not be sure the ball had crossed the line. Almost all in the stadium in South Africa (well, maybe not the German fans) realized a huge mistake had been made, especially those who could follow the match on their mobiles, not to mention the hundreds of millions watching worldwide on their high-definition TVs.
The Germans have since suggested the decision was overdue redress for perhaps the most disputed goal of all time, the one scored by Geoff Hurst to give England a winning 3:2 lead in the 1966 World Cup final. (The team eventually won 4:2.) There is still debate whether the ball crossed the underside of the crossbar before bouncing down. Indeed the German language has a specific term for the incident: “Wembley-Tor.” (Wembley is the iconic London stadium that hosted the final).
The antagonism between the countries is now being played out in the commercial world. Blatter’s decision led to three companies being granted licenses to deploy systems, from a short list of twelve.
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